Detroit: Become Human Review

By Blair Nokes on June 19, 2018

Games like Detroit: Become Human owe a lot to original text-based adventure games, where a player is faced with a question of where to go or what to do, and is offered a series of possible outcomes. French video games designer David Cage has been a pioneer of evolving this genre into fully realized 3D adventure games, where your choices ought to matter.

To say he’s gone through a bit of trial and error would be an understatement. I remember Indigo Prophecy rather fondly, but not quite for the reasons you would expect; my friend and I were obsessed with a relaxing mini-game in which the protagonist would play guitar in his apartment. That was it; aside from that, the story was muddled, the choices were very black and white, and the climax strayed way too far into the supernatural.

Cage’s next attempt – Heavy Rain - certainly laid the groundwork for Detroit to build upon; however it was not without its faults. Assuming control of different individuals was a great way to look at a story from different angles, however it had fallen prey to one of my cardinal sins of storytelling, which is to deliberately withhold information, only to use that omission as a “twist” for the end. It was particularly apparent when said character was not only a main character, but one of the game’s mechanics was that you can listen into their deeper thoughts, making the twist all the more flawed, in the end.

It wasn’t until 2015 where we saw some true innovation in this genre, with Supermassive Games’ cult hit, Until Dawn. It clearly took its inspirations from Cage’s works, but brought them to levels previously unseen before. It had you take control 8 characters, and the ending of the game was so varied that you could have all of them alive, all of them dead, and every variation between those two choices.

Back in 2012, Quantic Dream initially released an impressive Tech Demo, titled “Kara,” which would serve as way to showcase Quantic’s vast improvements in facial features and emotional range of motion capturing by highlighting an AI being assembled as she communicated with her maker. Cage later chose to build on this idea, and borrowed from elements such as Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near – and tried to focus on a setting depicting the rate at which human intelligence develops pales in comparison to that of artificial intelligence. This would be the birth of 2018’s Detroit: Become Human and what is undoubtedly Cage’s greatest achievement.

Similar to Heavy Rain, the central plot for Detroit is told from the perspectives of three androids: Kara, Markus, and Connor. Each have vastly differing primary directives, with Kara as a Housekeeper, Markus as a Caretaker, and Connor as a Police Investigator. The game begins with Connor sent to a rooftop suite, investigating a potential Deviant – an android acting against its primary directives. All androids are manufactured by CyberLife; deviations of their products are at this point a rare anomaly, and thus Connor is manufactured to investigate on CyberLife’s behalf, uncover the root causes for Deviant behaviour, and report back with his findings. The scene Connor arrives at shows us an android that clearly turned Deviant, killed his owners and is now holding a young girl hostage. Your first task in the game is to reconstruct the events that statistically ought to have happened based on what you observe and uncover in the crime scene. Clues you find, questions you ask all increase or decrease the overall probability of a successful de-escalation.

Kara is housekeeper who was recently reassembled from what we are only told was an "accident", although it’s increasingly clear that her owner, with his frequent displays of violent and intoxicated behaviour played a part in her disassembly. We begin her tale by completing menial tasks, cleaning the house, and caring for the owner’s daughter, Alice, whom we begin to form a close, almost maternal connection to. One night, Todd – the father – gets into an awful fit of drunken rage and threatens Alice’s life. A critical fork in the road of Kara’s protocols is left for us to choose: remain complacent and obedient to our owner despite his clear fit of rage, or to break protocol and put Alice’s life as your main priority.

Markus, is a caretaker for a disabled elderly man, and is immediately alarmed when they return home one day to the suspected presence of a possible burglary. Upon confronting the perpetrator, we left to choose between obeying our owner, who was looking out for our well-being and had asked us to stay put, or to break protocol and intervene with the intruder.

Both of these instances were the game’s way of allowing players to visually break the walls and chains constricting these androids; through a series of mini-games and quick-time events, we control a projected image of what can only be described as the android’s consciousness as they tear down the walls that structure their very programming, and allow them to emerge as a Deviant with full autonomy over their choices and actions.

This was a fantastic visualization of the struggle it would be to free an enslaved mind, and by successfully doing so, we begin the branching narrative of understanding that “Deviance” was simply a manufactured and rather derogatory term to mask the truth that these androids were in fact developing human-like emotions, feelings, thoughts and conflicts.

This is the essence of Detroit: Become Human, however the overarching tale is left entirely to the individual player, and their choices they make along the way. I noted earlier about how linear some of David Cage’s earlier works were, or rather how black-and-white the choices were. This concern was almost instantaneously alleviated by the completion of the tutorial. By completing any level, you are given a visual representation of the paths you had selected, the branches that developed as a result (or consequently, the branches that had been closed off). It was daunting at first, to see all the possibilities I could have taken, and the best part of it was – said choices were hidden from me. I would never know what they were until I had actually enacted it in game. This retains the initial awe and mystery a first playthrough evokes, and promotes replayability to a degree where it would still feel like a new experience. Some choices and branches are obvious (simple yes or no scenarios would give you a hint as to what you would need to do in a second attempt), however throughout the course of the game there are branches that are created entirely by the choices made or discoveries found in earlier chapters, and this is where Detroit truly shines. It has given players what is possibly the largest array of choices that ultimately matter, and truly impact the rest of the game. Entire friendships are forged or lost by simple decisions, and entire dialogues are created (or hidden) as a result of your choice.

Another wonderful tool Detroit grants players is the ability to see wordwide statistics; did you make the same decision as the majority of the world, or did you deviate from the norm?

Unfortunately, to go any further into the details of the game’s story would be a great disservice to prospective players, and so all that I will state is that it succeeds in captivating the player, and for those who enjoy these types of games with a partner or group, it’s also just as engaging for the viewer. My wife and I would consult each other on what we felt was the right decision to make, and it was a wonderful exercise in expressing our moral compasses and what we felt was appropriate, given the context of where we were in the game.

The story isn’t without its assortment of issues, or grievances. For starters, Todd – the violent and drunken owner of Kara, was portrayed in a comically evil way; it just wasn’t a believable performance, and that’s not to say there aren’t truly despicable people in the world, but his whole performance of evilness never evoked a sense of believability, and instead felt more like the evil you’d see in a Saturday morning cartoon.

There were other issues with the game’s choices; not with the paths they create but how they’re expressed or described in the buttons you’re asked to choose. For example, when you’re confronted with the choice of how to respond to an interrogation, selecting “Determined” or “Confident” wouldn’t’ necessarily imply that you wish to give off a more aggressive tone in your answer, and there were a few instances where this occurred, in varying degrees. One prominent example was towards the end of the game, where a character that will go unnamed is forced with several choices upon being confronted by a potentially aggressive party. One of the options was to have your partner “Create a Distraction.” Initially, we thought this meant they’d cause a commotion elsewhere, forcing the aggressors to find the cause, but instead it resulted in the unnecessary sacrifice of your friends’ life. You would never realize that causing a distraction meant giving up a friendship you had worked hard at retaining up to this point, and that is one of the few instances where the choices you’re given to choose from don’t quite add up when it’s expressed in the cutscenes.

If you are familiar with David Cage’s games, you will be very familiar with how Detroit: Become Human controls. Unfortunately the loose character movement from its predecessors is still there, and there are times where the camera will fight the direction you want to move. Action sequences or even general movements are all done via quick-time-events, where you press the correct button in a sequence of buttons, or rotate the analog stick in the correct pattern to successfully complete the motions. One of the most impressive features that the game offers is when you are reconstructing past events, and this is primarily a gimmick that Connor utilizes. By analyzing certain features of a body, for example, we can then reconstruct the series of events that brought the body to its final destination. This is represented by Connor creating a type of video playback, with wireframe figures that enact the sequence to the best of your assessment. During this point you can rotate the camera and uncover clues to further your case.

Markus (predominantly) has an interesting mechanic whereby he will be faced with a choice of how to do things, and how to do things most effectively. From there, we control the starting point, and by moving the camera around, we can find different trajectories and possibilities for Markus to go to, and their end result. It’s very much a trial-and-error process, as some choices result in failure, but the game will only let you progress if you have found the successful path. Connor also has similar instances throughout the story, and the most impressive things about this mechanic is to see you progress through a successful path, only to fail elsewhere because of something you had missed.

The game is nothing short of visually stunning. From the very main menu where you are questioned by Chloe – the android that oversees your entire progression, the attention to detail with regards to the facial mapping is astounding at times. The eerily realistic facial features are complimented by the robotic-like motions of the androids, which really give off the feeling that you are playing Androids that are indeed becoming human. Certain segments of the game will have the camera pan out to really appreciate the scenery, or get up close in personal in heightened, tense portions. The game does not shy away from depicting some of the truly darker sides of humanity, covering topics like sexual or physical abuse, slavery, and torture are all present and handled tastefully in most cases, and forced in others (thinking primarily of Todd’s story). Ultimately, our goal as the player is to uncover our subconscious beliefs of Artificial Intelligence and answer some ethical choices that have us fighting for, or against an android’s sense of self-worth. A lot of that delivery is strictly because of Detroit’s visual fidelity.

Final Thoughts

Detroit: Become Human is less of a game and more of an experience; it’s an experience I hope every PS4 owner discovers and experiments with, as it is quite unlike any other title out now. It’s something to be enjoyed multiple times over, as you and a friend can recount entirely different paths and experiences, and have totally different endings and outcomes. For all the flak that David Cage has received in his past works, this is certainly and undoubtedly his greatest yet. Quantic Dreams have finally accomplished what they’ve tried (and fallen short of achieving) for over a decade now, which is to give players a true sense of choice, consequence, loss and discovery with the way they have structured Detroit’s narrative.

Detroit: Become Human was reviewed using a PS4 Digital Copy provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment. You can find additional information about Gaming Union's ethics policy here.
The sheer quantity of choices and paths you can choose are daunting to witness at the end of each level.
The facial animations are eerily realistic.
The plot engages you from multiple perspectives, and ties together nicely.
Todd's portrayal is less believable and more comically evil.
Some character movements are loose and unresponsive.
The way some choices are expressed don't always equate to what they end up becoming.
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